A Love Letter…To My Boobs

Photo by me, Editing by Julie Verone

A love letter to my boobs,

You have been chapped, cracked, bleeding, purple, sore, slanted, chewed, engorged, clogged, mis-shapened and infected. You have provided nutrition to two babies, and even more through donation. You’ve made thousands of ounces in thousands of minutes. You’ve been chomped on, slurped, and strapped to a machine more times than can be counted. You’ve been fed supplements, cookies and teas. You’ve been restricted from entire food groups. You’ve truly been through the ringer.

But you can rest now. You’re retired. It’s sooner than we expected, but I’m still proud of you. I’ve been pretty mean to you over the years. Cursing your inability you make enough, your inability to form the right shape for latching, your aggressive let-down. Blaming you for babies’ fussiness or rashes, labeling you as a failure. I’m sorry about that. You did great work.

Rest easy now, you low hanging beauties, your work here is done.

Breastfeeding. What a fucking journey. I truly had NO idea. I’m not saying I was lied to, but I was lied to. LOL

I’ve always been in the fed is best camp. You do you, boo. I do think the fact that our bodies (theoretically) are capable of making food for our babies that gives them the exact nutrition that they need over time is so cool. I think we should stop making moms feel like they should cover up. I think we should let people breastfeed in peace for as long as they want to. I think we should provide EVERY resource to women choosing to breastfeed so that they can do it for as long as they want. Employers should have nursing/pumping spaces, supervisors should be taught how to support this and have those conversations, and women should be taught how to advocate for those resources when needed. Lactation consultants should be covered by insurance. Black women and women of color should be encouraged to breastfeed and receive support, which they currently receive at a significantly lower rate than white mothers.

And while I fully believe that there should be ample education about breasfeeding, the science behind breastmilk, and tons of support for those who make that choice or show interest. I also think there should also be NO pressure put on mothers to breastfeed. The popularity and pressure around breastfeeding has ebbed and flowed over generations, and also differs amongst cultures and communities. I get it, your bodies grow a baby, and then they make food for that baby. If you can feed them that food, sure. But currently I do think there is a lot of pressure on moms to breastfeed. It’s almost trendy. When my mom chose to breastfeed in the 1980s she was told, and I quote, “that is for poor people”. Plot twist, we were poor. LOL Her parents thought it was WILD that she was nursing me and my brother and had no interest in her doing “that” around them.

Nowadays I think it has certainly shifted to the expectation being that you do breastfeed, and if you don’t, for whatever reason there is both internal and external judgment and pressure that is felt. My journey with feeding my babies has been very different between the two. But, the personal impact on me as a human and a mom was ultimately the same: failure.

When my first baby was born 6 weeks early and wisked off to the NICU, I got the message right away from the staff in the hospital that breastmilk was what he needed. It didn’t bother me, because it was my plan, but I also heard loud and clear “THIS IS THE BEST CHOICE FOR YOUR BABY”. Which then got converted in my head to “YOU NEED TO DO THIS FOR HIM AT ANY COST”, “IF YOU CAN’T DO THIS YOU HAVE FAILED HIM”, “PUSH YOURSELF TO ANY LIMIT TO DO THIS”. I got a lot of “encouragement” from the nurses who were checking on me while I was pumping around the clock, which only further pushed my achievement complex. “You’re such a good mama. You’re such a dedicated mom. Wow what a good mom” ss my hands were cramping from manually expressing drops and thimbles full of colostrum that my husband was then scurrying to the nicu to deliver. All that did was further reinforce the expectation even though it was veiled as a compliment it was saying if you aren’t doing this you aren’t a good mom, you aren’t dedicated, etc. It was reiminscent to me of getting compliments from people when you’ve lost weight. They’re disguised as compliments “you look great!” “get it girl” “*fire emojis”, but what it actually says it you didn’t look great before. You notice when you’re not getting the compliments and you know what that means.

My milk did come in eventually and it felt good. I’ve said this before, but it felt like the only thing I could control. The only thing that only I was able to give my fragile, tough, little guy. Sitting up in my sister in law’s house in the middle of the night hooked up to the hospital grade pump I rented, blurry eyed from exhaustion and tears, away from my baby overnight, hoping the nurses were taking care of him, and thinking well at least I have this. At least I can make food for him. Even though it hurt so bad. My nipples were raw from pumping for 30 minutes every 1-2 hours to make sure I got that supply up. Then when we were there during the day, I would try and nurse him by myself and end up in tears because he couldn’t latch, Kenny would give him a bottle and I would take myself into the quiet humming solace of the pumping room. Multiple moms, multiple stalls, a sink and a pile of supplies. I could sit there alone, close my eyes, and wish for the sweet, breastfeeding experience I expected. The tears are flooding back in as I write this and I realize that the emotions I have from that time two years ago are as raw as my nipples were.

I feel the panic set back in remembering how I was going to have to return this New York hospital grade pump, use my own regular one in the long car ride back to Boston, and try to get a rental at home. But it was a weekend. And what if my supply dropped because of this less powerful pump, and what if he was starving, and that would be my fault. I even thought trying to buy one of the hospital pumps for thousands of dollars, which in fact, you can’t buy. I couldn’t find one place where you could.

But, even once we were home, and he was getting plenty of expressed breast milk via bottle, both my OB and his pediatrician, and his doctors from the NICU and the lactation consultants from the hospital all recommended I try to establish breastfeeding and should see a consultant right away when I get home. Even though I could barely see straight from the traumatic birth, nicu stay, 6 hour drive home, no sleep newborn phase, and preemie isolation guidelines.

But, I went. I went three times to the person at the hospital where I was supposed to give birth. She was very nice. She told me I could do it, she showed me how to get him latched, she weighed him. I left there feeling confident. Then I got home, he started crying, and we could NOT do it. I was home alone, sobbing hysterically, thinking we JUST did this in the office. What happened. After the third time there, with her just doing and saying the same things I knew that wasn’t going to work. I realized that she was turning me into an octopus. With one arm I was holding him, with the other making my breast into a “sandwhich”, then with her arm she was adjusted his positioning on the breastfeeding pillow she sold me, and with the other she was physically opening his mouth wide enough to latch. She gave me a list of supplements to take to increase my supply, but you know the thing that will really bring it up…pumping more.

So, I did. I added pumping sessions and minutes. I did power pumping (one full hour of pumping with 10 min on and 10 min off). I ate 18393030193 lactation cookies. I gagged down the tea. I rubbed every ointment on my nipples that made me cry in the shower because of the pain. I showed them to my OB and she said “par for the course”.

Then I hired a lactation consultant to come into my house, for $400 out of pocket, which MIGHT be reimbursed by insurance. She was actually helpful. She is the one who diagnosed my infection and told me which ointment to request from my doctor. She gave me different flanges that would be more comfortable. And she gave me permission to just pump if that was working for me. She somehow had the right balance of knowledge, education, support AND that I was also a human being with feelings and needs. And that a three part feed of attempt to nurse, bottle, pump forever was likely unsustainable.

Ultimately, I exclusively pumped for just over 10 months and gave my baby breastmilk for almost his entire first year. I was exhausted. I was proud. I’m glad I did it and I wish I didn’t. I missed out on so much of the sweet newborn snuggles because I was attached to a machine. I missed out on precious, rare sleep, because even when he slept I needed to pump to KEEP THAT SUPPLY UP. And it was all based on pressure that I internalized that if I did not feed him breastmilk I would be a failure and he would be at a deficit.

It sent me straight into postpartum depression symptoms, which was diagnosed as PTSD from infertility, pregnancy loss, birth and feeding trauma. Therapy helped, but this experience significantly contributed to a mental health crisis that could have been avoided had ONE person in a position of power or influence had said to me “You have done enough. You are a good mom regardless of how the baby is fed. He will be JUST fine if you feed him formula. You are enough.”

When discussing the possibility of trying for a second baby around my first’s 1st birthday, my new OB who had referred me to therapy in the first place, said you know breastfeeding was triggering for you, so you need to give yourself permission now to NOT. And I agreed. And I went on my way to start what I thought would be a long arduous process of trying to have another baby…

And, surprise, it was not long nor arduous. It was fast, and surprising, and besides the beginning which was touch and go, was relatively “easy”. But, it was fast. I had much less time to heal than I thought I would. I only had two months of not pumping before getting pregnant. My boobs were just getting their life back when they were taken for other purposes again.

I went to therapy throughout this pregnancy and talking through my feelings helped. My mantra was “I will breastfeed for as long as it doesn’t make me miserable and the minute it does, I am done” and “I am going to try, if it works it works, if not, fine” Much easier said than done.

But when Logan arrived, in a pretty easy and quick delivery, much like how he came to be in the first place, lol, he also latched like a champ. Just an hour or so after birth. And I thought, wow, maybe I will get that magical, bonding, natural breastfeeding experience I hear about. And for the first several days, we were doing pretty well. Once we got home, the pain really set in, and given my past experience I was wasting NO time trying to resolve any issues. I called the in home consultant, shelled out the money again, and had a two hour virtual appt with her. It was surprisingly helpful given she wasn’t in the house with me. It felt a lot more comfortable and we were off and running.

It was so nice going to his doctor’s appointments without anything, no pump, no bottles, no formula, just mama. I was feeling like a ‘real (breastfeeding) mom’. But then around two weeks, things took a turn. He started gagging, wretching, coughing, choking when feeding, he seemed unsatisfied. He was gassy, he couldn’t be settled, he wasn’t sleeping. He had a rash on his face and chest. His poops were mucousy and GROSS. When you look up these symptoms you see two things: milk intolerance and over-supply/aggressive let-down. I had to laugh. I would have given ANYTHING to have an over supply for Liam instead of grasping for every mililiter I could get. Now, my supply might be choking this kid. Damn you universe.

At his one month appt, his doctor suggested I cut dairy out of my diet just to see if there was an improvement in his demeanor or other symptoms. I wasn’t thrilled, but also didn’t mind cutting dairy. I had done it before when cleaning up my diet. She gave us a sample of Nutramigen just in case we needed to supplement since he was eating so often and I wasn’t sleeping at all. But after a couple of weeks of no dairy I didn’t notice much improvement, then it was recommended I also cut out soy becuse the intolerance in babies is often both milk and soy proteins. That was a whole new ballgame, because fun fact, soy is in EVERYTHING.

I was so defeated. This time seemed better. This time seemed like it would work. Worst case, I had TOO MUCH MILK. What a blessing. But turns out it can be quite a challenge for the baby and cause some issues. We tested his stool and he didn’t have blood which was a good thing, but the doctor still diagnosed him with the milk intolerance based on all his other symptoms.

We tried the hypoallergenic formula a couple times at night and he did fine with it. Then just to see if there was a difference, I pumped for 48 hours and we fed him formula to see and he did great. He slept better and longer and was less fussy. The breaking point for me was going to our family cottage for a weekend, wanting to get takeout with the family and feeling like there was nothing I could eat. It sounds so silly, but I was sad. I also realized I was replacing otherwise healthy options with crap because the crap had no dairy and I was feeling deprived.

On the one hand the formula was working. He was more pleasant, less gassy, the rash went away, he was sleeping. On the other hand I was making all this milk, I COULD restrict my diet so he could have it but it would take 8 weeks to work itself out of my system and the formula is very expensive.

I finally just realized. I want to give him the formula. It makes him happier. It makes me happier. I didn’t realize this before, but I wanted my body back. Not in the instagram model, snapback after pregnancy way, because eff that message and expectation, but in the ‘this body I live in hasn’t been truly mine since 2015’ way. I’ve been essentially a science project/pin cushion, then a home, then food, then a home, then food for almost 5 years. I was just done with not being able to do, eat, drink, whatever. I wanted to be able to make healthy, or sometimes unhealthy, choices for myself. I realized that as much as I liked that I could provide him nutrition, I also loved “freedom”. Not that any of us are really going anywhere or doing anything at this point, but even for doctor’s appointment or essential appointments I felt restricted.

While pumping exclusively is truly a WHOLE THING, there are some benefits I didn’t quite appreciate at the time and I see why some who do it choose to continue with subsequent children. You get used to what you’re used to. I created the schedule, I was not at the whim of the baby. So, if I wanted to have a drink or go out, I could plan accordingly and make that happen pretty easily. I could sleep. My husband and I had a good system where we would split shifts of sleeping or caretaking on weeknights and then each take a whole night to sleep while “off duty” on the weekends. That way we knew we would at least get a few hours uninterrupted each night, and then look forward to an entire restful night a week to rejuvenate us. We never saw each other, lol, but that’s a post for a different day. But, with pumping it’s on your timeline. When you decide you want to wean off or cut a session, you just do it. I didn’t realize how much being the baby’s only food source directly would scare me a little.

So, right on the deck that weekend, I decided. If I can get the formula covered by insurance because of his diagnosis, I will stop. But it was so much money I felt like that had to be the deciding factor, and in the meantime, to keep up my supply in case it wasn’t covered, I pumped. Back to my old glory days. Some of it came easily, just like riding a bike. But I also saw how it was putting something, literally, between me and the baby, yet again.

I pumped for a few weeks while going back and forth with insurance, doctors office, preauthorizations, denials, appeals. We are still in the process and hoping it will be covered. But at one point I finally allowed myself to say he is truly a happier baby on the formula. And I am a happier mom that he is comfortable and that I am not tethered to a machine and not severely restricting my diet. Maybe if I perservered with the elimination diet for months I would see results, but I am not willing to put myself through that. So, then and there I said even if its not covered, this is what we are doing.

I felt an immediate sense of relief when I made the decision. And then an immediate sense of guilt. I had a 6 week virtual appt with my OB and she asked how I was doing and I just started crying. I felt like I had to convince her I was fine because I was, I hadn;t been crying but for some reason when she asked it felt different. She said while looking directly into my eyes “I give you permission to stop. Just stop. You’ve done enough.” And there was the thing I had been waiting for since my first baby.

I do still feel guilt for this decision, but also still feel like its the right one for us and me. I feel bad that I am making ample milk and “wasting it”. I feel guilty that this formula costs a fortune and we will have to pay hundreds out of pocket if it isn’t covered. But, I just keep going back to his one month appointment where he cried the entire time and the doctor had to teach us how rock him, facing out on her hip to get him to stop. To his 2 month appointment where he laid peacefully on the table the entire time. No rash. No gross poops.

We’re still fighting with insurance trying to prove his medical need for it. But I have come to terms. My breastfeeding journey has ended. I have a deep freezer full of 800+ ounces of milk. I have started the screening process to donate it which makes me really happy because it will go to NICU babies in need and it brings it all full circle. The pediatrician wants us to wait a couple of months since it will last a while in there, we may be able to give it to Logan since many babies outgrow this intolerance over time. But either way it will not go to waste and will go to baby(s) who can use it.

I’ve gotten very fast at organizing frozen milk so it doesn’t thaw!

I weaned off pumping over the course of 3-4 weeks using a slow approach. I remembered NOTHING about how I weaned off last time, lol, it was a blur of minutes and ounces and sessions. So, I looked up some stuff and used a combination of what I saw on a few sites including this one: https://exclusivepumping.com/weaning-from-the-pump/

Here is an image of the chart I used to get from 3 pumps down to 0. I used the one from the link above as an example and then made mine based on my numbers, etc. I had to stretch it out a little because even when I was down to 2 pumps and 1 pump a day I was still making 7-9 ounces each time, so I couldn’t quit cold turkey.

I think about how much money I spent on every item on the market that is supposed to help you breastfeed. Nipple pads of every variety, every cream and lotion, the cookies, the tea, brewers yeast, supplements, a duct massager, 1839302 pumping bras, pillows, flanges, special bottles and nipples, pacifiers, shields, extra pumps, storage containers. I’m glad these things exist because I hope they help people achieve the result they’re looking for. But damn, what an industry. While this may not be the intent, that industry told me “there is NO excuse. We have everything you could possibly need to help you breastfeed if you really want to.”

Last Milk bags!

I just want us to be nice to the tatas. Be nice to your own, too. I thought miscarriage and infertility would be the hardest, most emotionally draining part of my motherhood journey. Then breastfeeding was like HAHA not.so.fast. And it’s not one or the other, they are all interconnected. All these things play into the narrative of what we are taught the ideal mom/woman should be and all of the ways in which we don’t measure up.

My friend in my head/on the internet, Holly, aka @roads.to.motherhood has been sharing her breastfeeding struggles on her Instagram and it’s been so touching to watch. Highly recommend you follow her, she is a sweet soul. She said her husband and/or therapist asked her, if one of your friends was struggling and asked you for advice, what would you tell them? And she realized she should finally take her own advice and give herself some grace.

So, that’s what I am doing. I am taking the advice I would give to any of my friends and letting go of the made up image of the “good mom” that is unachievable, trusting my gut and just being Liam and Logan’s mom which is all that I need to be.

Me and my boobs will be having drinks, cheese and soy sauce to our heart’s content from now on. 🙂

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